Recent reports of the end of life of the Pentax K-1 have spawned a lot of forum chatter about what its replacement would be. It turns out that the Pentax K-1 Mark II ($ 1,999.95, body only) isn’t much different from the camera that came before it. It sports the same 36MP full-frame sensor (albeit with some processing upgrades to boost image quality) and autofocus system. Its marquee upgrade is the ability to use the multi-shot Pixel Shift Resolution feature when shooting handheld. We would have liked to see more upgrades, especially to the autofocus system, but it’s good to know that Pentax is continuing to supports its full-frame customers. The camera goes on sale in April but I have some first impressions.
The K-1 Mark II has the exact same body design as the first iteration of the camera. It’s got the same angled lines that evoke the classic medium format Pentax 6×7, the same oddly hinged LCD…the same everything. It measures 4.3 by 5.4 by 3.4 inches and weighs 2.2 pounds. It’s a little smaller than some other high-resolution models, like the pricier Nikon D850 (4.9 by 5.8 by 3.1 inches), but it’s also heavier (the Nikon is about 3 ounces lighter).
Despite the extra weight, the K-1 Mark II feels good in the hand. The handgrip is deep enough for comfortable shooting, even when paired with a longer lens. The body omits a built-in flash, a feature that we’re seeing disappear from more and more cameras, especially those geared at pros and enthusiasts. Some will find it an omission—a pop-up is useful for some quick fill when you don’t want to use a big strobe, and can also trigger off-camera lighting without the need for an add-on radio trigger—and others won’t miss it at all. You already know which side of that fence you’re on.
The K-1 Mark II is sealed against dust and moisture, so you can use it in all kinds of weather when paired with a sealed lens. We’ve seen weather sealing on all of the full-frame lenses that Pentax has released since the debut of the K-1, but you’ll need to be careful when using older glass.
The normal array of SLR control buttons are there. The focus mode toggle switch is on the front, near the lens mount, and is paired with a button to change the AF mode in conjunction with the front and rear control dial. There’s also a Raw/Fx button to change file format, and a Lock button to prevent inadvertent changes to settings.
On top you get the Mode dial, to the left of the pentaprism. It locks in place, with a switch at its base to keep it set or allow it to turn freely. When it is in the locked position you can also depress a center switch in order to turn it. I like the design, as it caters to photographers who prefer a locked dial and those who don’t.
To the right of the prism is the dial that sets the K-1 apart from competing SLRs. It changes the function of the other, unmarked dial on the top of the body. You can set it to control a number of functions, including the continuous shooting speed, crop mode, EV compensation level, ISO, Wi-Fi system, and others. I almost always left it set to EV control when I was shooting with the K-1, but your needs may be different.
It’s joined by a small monochrome LCD, which shows the ISO, shutter speed, aperture, battery life, and active card slot. It’s less info than you get from bigger screens—the level of EV compensation set is a notable omission. Also on top are a button to control the camera’s lighting, a dedicated EV button to supplement the dial function, and the shutter release. The On/Off switch surrounds the shutter.
The backlight button doesn’t just turn on the backlight for the information LCD. The K-1 Mark II also has a series of LED lights. They illuminate on-body controls, so you can see what you’re doing when working in a dim studio or under dark skies to get the perfect Milky Way image. I’m a bit lukewarm on the idea. I much prefer working with backlit controls, like the ones Nikon includes on the D850. They’re less jarring to the eye, so there’s less adjustment time for your pupils when working with them under dark skies.
Rear controls include the Live View and metering controls at the top left corner. The rear control dial (the front is on the handgrip), AF, and AE-L buttons are at the right side. The thumb rest incorporates an IR sensor for wireless shutter release (there’s one on the front too, for your selfie needs). The Green button, a familiar control for Pentax shooters that can quickly reset Program shooting settings or toggle auto ISO, is also on the back, along with Info, Menu, and Play buttons.
Finally there’s a four-way control pad with center OK button. The directional controls serve double duty. They’re labeled to adjust the Drive, JPG output settings, LCD brightness, and White Balance, but the Focus button above the pad switches its function to focus point adjustment. I’d much rather see a dedicated focus joystick, as it’s a bit clunky to toggle the function with the button.
The Mark II sports the same eye-level viewfinder as the K-1. It’s a pentaprism with 100 percent coverage and 0.7x magnification, with an overlay framing grid that can be turned on or off. When I reviewed the K-1 I thought it looked a little dimmer than the Nikon D810 and Canon EOS 5D Mark IV when viewed side-by-side.
The rear display is 3.2 inches and 1,037k dots. It is not sensitive to touch. It’s mounted on the same unique hinge system that we saw with the K-1. Four arms extend to pull the display out from the body, and the panel itself is mounted on a hinge, so it can tilt to face up. It’s a design that we still haven’t seen on models aside from the K-1. It’s solid, and a bit more versatile than a simple hinged display. If the K-1 had better video chops I’d say a vari-angle display would be beneficial, but it’s a stills-first camera so the ability to point the LCD in the same direction isn’t a must-have.
Connectivity and Features
The K-1 Mark II includes dual UHS-I SD card slots. The UHS-I standard is slower than the newer UHS-II. You can put a 95MBps card in the Mark II and take full advantage of its speed, but UHS-II cards are as fast as 300MBps. The Mark II isn’t a burst-shooting maven, but it would be a plus to have faster write times when you are capturing a number of images in sequence.
Other connections include a 3.5mm microphone input and a headphone jack, micro HDMI, micro USB, and DC power input. There’s Wi-Fi, but we were disappointed with the wireless experience with the K-1 and other cameras that use the Ricoh Image Sync app to transfer photos. It’s a slow, buggy piece of software. It hasn’t been updated recently, but I will see if the company has made any improvements when the Mark II comes in for review.
In-body stabilization is a hallmark of Pentax cameras. The K-1 Mark II has a 5-axis stabilization system, rated to 5 stops by CIPA. The system isn’t any stronger than you get with the K-1, but improved processing and precision adds a feature missing from the first camera—handheld Pixel Shift Resolution.
Pixel Shift Resolution takes a series of four images, moving the sensor by a single pixel each time, in order to better sample color. To understand why this works, you need to know how a Bayer image sensor works. The K-1’s sensor is sensitive to light, but not color. A filter array, a complex matrix of red, green, and blue in a repeating four-by-four pattern, sits over the sensor and makes it sensitive to only certain hues of light at each pixel site. To fill in the blanks, the image processor interpolates data from surrounding pixels. Moving the sensor allows the K-1 to sample color and luminosity data at each pixel, effectively improving its resolution without upping the pixel count.
Other cameras do this, and typically require a sturdy tripod and a static subject to be effective. The K-1 promises to let you use the feature when handholding the camera. I’m a bit dubious as to how well handheld multi-shot compositing is going to work—it’s tough to get the most out of a high-resolution sensor even when you don’t have to worry about shifting the sensor while compensating for the normal shake. But I’ll be happy to be wrong—that’s something I’ll test when the camera comes in for review.
The Mark II also includes a GPS, the same as the K-1. It adds geographic metadata to images, but can also be used for long exposure star photography. If you don’t want to add star trails to an image you can enable the Astrotracer feature. It shifts the sensor to compensate for the rotation of the Earth, so you can shoot stars with longer exposure times and lower ISOs. When I tested the feature I found it was good for exposures as long as two minutes, though Pentax states that you can use it for up to five minutes under the right conditions. Keep in mind that if you’re incorporating landscape into your star shots you’ll see blur in the terrestrial objects, so you’ll still need to do some Photoshop compositing to get the perfect land and sky image.
Performance and Imaging
I plan to put the K-1 Mark II through formal performance testing, but it should perform exactly the same as the K-1. I found the K-1’s autofocus system to be a bit frustrating in real-world use. In the lab, it locked on quickly (0.08-second) under bright light, but in dimmer light it could take as long as 0.6-second to focus.
I recently reviewed the 24-70mm F2.8 along with the original K-1 and became reacquainted with the autofocus system. Even with a pro-grade, bright zoom, I found it difficult to snap shots of fast-moving subjects indoors. If you have an active pet or toddler, or you shoot events in dubious lighting—wedding receptions come to mind—you’re better served with a different camera. The K-1 isn’t up to the autofocus task, and the Mark II makes no changes to the autofocus system.
See How We Test Digital Cameras
Burst shooting tops out at 4.4fps. When the K-1 was released that figure was on the slow side, but not terribly slow when you considered its 36MP sensor and the 5fps of the Nikon D810. But since then we’ve seen faster and faster capture with more pixels. The Canon 5D Mark IV packs 30MP and shoots at 7fps, the 45MP Nikon D850 can go as quickly as 9fps with a grip attached, and the 42MP Sony a7R III manages 10fps. You can boost the K-1’s speed to 6.4fps by switching to the 15MP APS-C crop mode.
Despite using the same 36MP as the K-1, the Mark II does promise better image quality as you push the ISO setting higher. It has what Pentax parent company Ricoh is calling an accelerator unit, which boosts the performance of the Prime IV image processor. The K-1 Mark II can shoot at up to ISO 819200,a full two stops higher than the ISO 204800 available with the K-1. How much better the high ISO images look remains to be seen, and will be answered when we test the K-1 Mark II in the lab.
If you’re serious about video, you are not using a Pentax camera. The K-1 Mark II’s video toolkit is very limited, with capture topping out at 1080p. The K-1’s footage showed a lot of rolling shutter effect, along with unnatural shimmering and the rainbow effect of color moiré. We’ll see if the Mark II’s updated processing does anything to improve video, but we don’t expect it to.
The Pentax K-1 Mark II isn’t that much different than the K-1. Yes, it promises better high ISO image quality and handheld Pixel Shift Resolution capture, but those are the only changes. The problem is, image quality was never a concern with the K-1—if that’s all you’re concerned about, it’s a stellar camera as is.
The K-1’s shortcomings come in different areas. Its autofocus system struggles to keep up with moving targets, its burst rate is slow (the Nikon D850 shoots at 7fps and the Sony a7R III at 10fps; both sport sensors with more significantly more pixels), and its video features are way behind the times. And the Wi-Fi system is slow, with a companion app that’s neither intuitive nor polished.
Ricoh’s engineers did nothing at all to address these issues. That makes the K-1 Mark II not so much a new camera as a retread. Now, if you’re dedicated to the Pentax system and don’t mind the drawbacks, the existence of the K-1 II isn’t a bad thing. But if you already spent a couple thousand dollars on a K-1, well, there’s not a lot here to entice you to upgrade. Your money would be better spent on lenses, lighting, or other add-ons to expand your photographic kit.
Other high-resolution cameras have come out in the time since the 2016 release of the K-1 and have shown what modern processing power can do, but they come at a much higher price. Both the Nikon D850 and Sony a7R III, the K-1’s closest competition in terms of sensor specs, shoot fast with autofocus systems that lock on nearly instantaneously, and they shoot 4K video. And while the Nikon omits in-body stabilization, the a7R III includes the feature. Of course, we must remember that these are $ 3,000 cameras, and the K-1 Mark II is a $ 2,000 model.
The K-1 Mark II is set to go on sale in April. In addition to the body only option, it will be available bundled with the 28-105mm zoom for $ 2,399.95. Additionally, current owners of the K-1 will be able to send their camera in for an upgrade. The cost is a bit steep, $ 550.
We’ll put it through the same testing process as the K-1 and competing models when we get a chance to use it.
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